Proclaiming life amidst death

Denominational leaders must confront the brutal facts and share them with the congregations and clergy in their charge but they also must proclaim something that sounds like real Christian hope.

A friend of mine serves as the pastor of a small membership parish that is booming. This congregation doubled worship attendance in the past 18 months, developed a thriving ministry to children and youth, strengthened adult Christian formation, met its annual budget by the start of the fourth quarter, and refurbished its physical plant. This turnaround story is a model for other small congregations that wonder if there is a future for them in urban settings.

Curiously, though, when the district superintendent came to preach several Sundays ago, the sermon was filled with references to denominational decline, losses in membership and anemic giving. The sermon did not celebrate the congregation or its new vitality but eulogized a denomination.

I imagined this was something of an unfortunate anomaly until I was visiting with a priest friend who told me that he does everything he can to shield his lay leaders from diocesan meetings.

He told me that his congregation is a vibrant, thriving place, but when his lay leaders participate in denominational gatherings they are bombarded with the message that the Church is in trouble, that congregations are in trouble and that they are failing as leaders.

He said he is weary of explaining to his congregation that some churches are in trouble and the denomination itself may be in trouble, but that that does not imperil the life that they share as a particular community of faith. He has to reassure the anxious that the denomination could disappear -- and while that would change their life together dramatically that would not bring an end to their congregation.

Denominational leaders have difficult jobs often defined by the symptoms of denominational decline. They know, better than most, the statistics and the balance sheets; they know about empty pews and empty coffers. They know all too well why many churches fail to thrive. They have seen the conflicts and heard the complaints. They have worked with congregations that fancy themselves as “friendly” and “welcoming” and “relevant” but are actually inhospitable places that presume a world that hasn’t existed since the 1950s (if it existed then). They have dealt with the fallout of clergy misconduct.

Given the difficult and often thankless content of their work, it is easy for denominational leaders to invite others to join them in sharing the pain of the church’s problems. Some of this isn’t bad. Some of this is a way that leaders do what Heifetz and Linsky note is essential for adaptive leadership. By inviting others into the problems of the church, denominational leaders turn the heat up a bit so that congregational leaders -- both lay and clergy -- feel an urgency about the future that requires renewed commitment, deepening investment, greater passion and energy.

The problem comes when the heat is too high and congregations get burned. When the heat is too high -- when the story is too grim, the narrative too despairing -- then the very leaders who need to invest in the future begin opting out.

We are in a season in the church’s life in which denominational leaders must be masters of the Stockdale Paradox, made famous in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.” You remember it? It goes something like this: “Face the facts but never lose hope.”

In this age, denominational leaders must confront the brutal facts and share them with the congregations and clergy in their charge but -- and this is the critical part -- they must proclaim something that sounds like real Christian hope, too. They must be articulators of challenge and opportunity, of problem and possibility. They must tell the truth about decline while also pointing to signs of vitality.

I once heard the filmmaker and pastor Marlon Hall say something that has stuck with me -- “We often tell the worst stories about ourselves to ourselves.” Hall’s mission is to tell better stories. If our denominational stories are only of despair and decline, they are out of step with the Gospel story we believe. Now is the season when denominational leaders must lead us by acknowledging death and proclaiming new life.